Hong Kong needs a reception strategy for refugees

Post Date: Jan 16th, 2014 | Categories: Advocacy | COMMENT

New refugee arrivals are processed by the Immigration Department’s General Investigation Section that confirms identity and determines release on recognizance. After tourist visas expires, persecution claimants may surrender at police stations, or directly to the Immigration Department in Kowloon Bay. They often do this after filing a refugee claim at UNHCR, though this channel will soon close.

Until recently, new claimants were sent to the Castle Peak Bay Immigration Centre for clearance, while only the sick, the pregnant and families were released on recognizance on the same day. Although detention is an unsettling prospect, refugees knew that within a month or two they would be released with Recognizance Forms (immigration papers) entitling them to SWD welfare services.

Vision First is gravely concerned that during these cold winter weeks, Immigration appears to be unable to process new claimants expeditiously. There have been numerous cases in which new arrivals, who launched protection claims, were asked to return to Immigration for registration a week later. In such incidents they risked arrest by the police as overstayers, despite having attempted to surrender. One African refugee asked Immigration what would happen and was told, “That is your problem!”

At issue is not the processing time of new applications, but how destitute human beings should survive without assistance in an unwelcoming environment. Recently several incidents occurred in which new claimants applied for protection and were told to return the following week, their passports having been retained and an appointment slips issued. However, they were not provided with Recognizance Forms and consequently could not access welfare services, despite being indigent.

Among these, one African refugee informed Immigration that he had no money and nowhere to stay. He was shocked when the officer sneered, “You go sleep in the streets at the Star Ferry and come back next Wednesday”. Another South Asian claimant was asked for his address and replied, “Outside, at the Star Ferry in TST”. He couldn’t believe his eyes when the officer wrote “ISS” in the address field.

It is outrageous that pushing refugees to sleep in the street and lying in their forms is part of Hong Kong’s policy for receiving new protection claims. Although indicative of systemic malaise, the lack of a comprehensive Reception Strategy is the most shameful part of this failed asylum policy. First impressions count and, being on the front line, Vision First assures that, from day one, our city fails to impress newly arrived refugees.

Forcing people to sleep under the cold winter sky leads to sickness that ultimately costs the government more than cheap guesthouse rooms. Until a government-run Refugee Hostel is opened, it is unconstitutional for the Immigration and Social Welfare Departments to ignore the plight of refugees who, by law, should not be left homeless in a state of destitution. It might be the case that damage claims should be launched against authorities to highlight and remedy this unacceptable negligence.

Vision First urges the government to deploy a comprehensive Reception Strategy for new arrivals. The Immigration Department must refrain from kicking people indifferently into the street – particularly those who recently suffered unspeakable tragedy. This is not a humanitarian issue, but one of the government’s mandatory duty to ensure that refugees – new arrivals or not – are not homeless and hungry. No excuse can be made for failing to provide basic asylum support to persecuted foreigners.

Newly arrived refugees often find shelter in the slums welcomed by co-nationals who hardly have sufficient food or resources to share with them.